By E. Martin Nolan
No one ever put a poster of a professional sports team owner on their childhood bedroom wall and no one ever pretended to be Mike Illitch or George Steinbrenner when paying a bill (“the waiter hands over the bill–he signs, and payment is accepted! The table goes wild!”). That’s probably not totally true (we’re told it’s right to envy the achievements of the wealthy, after all), but it is true that our devotion to professional players is far more widespread and emotional than any directed to an owner. I respect Mike Illitch, from what I know of him and his deeds, but he never beat John Casey over the right shoulder in double overtime. For that same reason, it’s no surprise that the players are receiving the bulk of fan sympathy in the most recent NHL labour dispute.
Nowhere is that more evocatively evident than in “Together We Can,” a tribute to the game and a protest of the looming lockout produced by a 21-year-old Finn, Janne Makkonen.
In the words of Cathal Kelly, Makkonen has harnessed the power of the montage coupled with a slowly built elctro-rock crescendo to “cast the players back into their mythic roles.” The surprising thing is that the players ever lost their roles, but they did, in 2004-5, when even most former players frowned upon their actions. This time around, though, it’s the owners who seem more ridiculous, with the players both seeming the more fair business partner, and being the ones we’re used to cheering for.
But let’s look at it another way. The owners seem more ridiculous, but does that make the players not ridiculous? And where do the fans fit in?
Let me start again.
Somehow, once again and depressingly, it looks very possible that the billionaire owners of the NHL will lockout the relatively only moderately superrich players. And so, once again, we are offered the chance to watch a mockery of labour strife unfold between two groups of cartoonishly rich men, in great detail (the contrast between the detail with which the media follows these negotiations and the ideological platitudes with which we are presented the labour issues of actually struggling workers, or the unemployed, is also depressing, but is a topic for another post). Then there are the fans. Where are they on this issue? Artic Ice Hockey recently polled its readers, asking them to select one of three options. 39 respondents sided with the owners, 130 with the players, and 180 selected “they are all a bunch of big doo doo heads.” I am mostly in line with the majority here.
And yet I, like you, still pay attention. That’s not for the sake of owners or the players, but for the game, which they combine to produce the world’s most impressive example of. Sorry for referring to this old “the game transcends” cliché, but it’s both true and biting us fans in the ass right now: the game the NHL produces transcends the bullshit of those who wield power over it, which in turn allows those who wield power over it to take our devotion to the game for granted, because we will love it despite their bullshit. So they can take the game away from us, they can squabble over their profits and salaries (gained at the expense of gouged fans), and all we can do is watch, despite the fact that without us, none of the money they’re fighting over would exist. So we’re both essential to the whole shenanigan and essentially muzzled in the negotiations.
That’s not the whole story. Some owners are losing money, so they probably have a genuine reason to negotiate better terms. While the reason (like being in Phoenix or Columbus) for their losing money, and how that loss actually shakes out (not as bad as the owners say – surprise, surprise), is a whole other very complicated story. Scott Stinson has teased that out, and Ryan Lambert has called out a lot of owner lies. The players, meanwhile, might have a point about revenue sharing and all that, but any sympathy that point might conjure fades in the brightness of their quite healthy paychecks. Not a one of them will ever be mistaken for the Ghost of Tom Joad.
And on the fans, when I say “we,” I mean devoted fans. Sure, casual fans will be lost from a work shortage, but the lifeblood of the NHL fan base will not be, just as it wasn’t in the previous two work stoppages. As Stinson points out, the NHL is following the NFL and NBA’s “playbook,” which saw fans return despite the labour issues in those sports.
And that’s why the devoted fans are both the victim and indirect perpetrator of our own victimhood. This is, of course, a kind of serious play-victimhood, but the fact remains we are taken advantage of because we accept that the privilege to watch NHL hockey is a right, when we have no real recourse to enforce that privilege as such. As the prospect of another lost season reminds us, that right is an illusion. For now we have venom, sure, for the puppet masters, but no route to the NHL or NHLPA’s bloodstream, where we might dream of letting it loose. Just like Toronto fans can’t punish the highly lucrative owners of a yearly on-ice joke for pretending to be acting in the fans’ interest, professional sports fans in general are helpless advocates of their own interests, despite ultimately footing the bill for the whole charade.
Which brings us back to Makkonen’s video, which begins with a call to arms. Makkonen contrasts the average salary and unemployment rate of the “USA & Canada” with the revenues and salaries of the NHL. The stats are not contextualized, Don Cherry is quoted complaining about ticket prices and a picture of Gary Bettman fades into one of a press printing money. In classic propagandist fashion, the images are more important than the completeness of the information, and the message is: the rich are screwing us, the working fans. But in a sentiment usually reserved for workers, not consumers, Makkonen suggests we shouldn’t just take it.
Makkonen’s video reaches its highest pitch when the words “Now we’re apart/ But not through choice/ Do we stay mute/ Or raise our voice?” flash slowly across the screen. They’re not untrue words. It’s just, they only matter in an abstract sense. We have raised our voice, but it holds no value that the NHL or NHLPA lawyers and accountants can recognize, aside from its effect on revenue, but only the revenue itself really counts to them. The video ends with a similarly true but ineffective appeal: “Hockey’s not about the money/ But the moment’s that last a lifetime.” So very true, and so very unrelated and so unable to effect the matters at hand.
And so we wait for the real gods of hockey, or of NHL hockey at least, to fight over the revenues they can count on us to hand over. When the game comes back, it’ll be “for the fans,” as the marketers will say. At least we know the players love the game too, and aren’t just being coldhearted calculators. And there I go, forgiving already.
Shit, when they bring the game back, I’ll watch. Because I’m a fan, because I’m assumed. But let’s recognize that that assumed status also makes us into, to use Bobby Orr’s phrase following the last lockout, “collateral damage.” And ain’t shit we can do about it but make spirited montage video clips and fill the comment sections with vitriol until they explode into a big flame of nothingness. And wait, we can wait.
 The lost season: A year in hockey without the NHL. By Andrew Podnieks. Fenn Publishing: Bolton, Ontario, Canada; 2005. P. 59.